On either side of Syria Street, battered buildings house hidden arsenals and legions of angry young men primed to confront their enemies across the road. Edgy lookouts on motorbikes make regular rounds, carrying walkie-talkies and ready to call out the reinforcements if needed.
“We are vigilant. We are lions,” said an enforcer from the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood that rises up a hill from Syria Street, a muscular man in his 30s with watchful eyes and a two-way radio. “If they attack us, then … ” His voice trailed off as he made a swift motion as if slitting a throat.
Throughout the neighborhood of shambolic cafes below the bullet-scarred facades of concrete apartment blocks, outsize posters of “Doctor Bashar” — Syrian President Bashar Assad — rally residents, mostly members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Down the hill, in the equally frayed streets of the Bab Tabbaneh district, which, like the rest of the city, is predominantly Sunni Muslim, just the mention of the Syrian leader’s name unleashes a slew of epithets: child killer, torturer, tyrant.
This is not war-ravaged Syria, but Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli.
As the conflict in Syria lurches toward all-out civil war, diplomats voice grave concern about “spillover” to neighboring nations, notably Lebanon, where memories of a long, traumatic civil war and the Syrian army’s occupation of the country remain fresh.
But here in Tripoli — more specifically in the volatile districts of Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tabbaneh, divided by the aptly named Syria Street — the “contagion” from Syria has already arrived, and it’s toxic.
A series of Syria-related clashes culminated this month in fierce urban combat that left 25 dead, as rivals from the two precincts exchanged machine-gun fire and volleys of rocket-propelled grenades from street corners and rooftops. Vandals torched Alawite-owned shops away from the shielded confines of Jabal Mohsen. Each side blames the other for starting the troubles.
The Lebanese military, nominally respected by both sides, was called in. Outgunned troops are now enforcing an uneasy truce, but the weak Lebanese state has no apparent plan beyond posting troops in armored vehicles.
Outwardly, the restive neighborhoods have a lot in common: Both are gritty working-class areas, both suffer from official neglect, and both are insular enclaves where outsiders are viewed warily. The government is absent. Clerics and political operatives linked to militias fill the void in the dense warren of apartment towers and narrow streets.
The residents on both sides of Syria Street are quick to assure the rare visitor: This is not sectarian. We are tolerant people.
But sect, and the deeply ingrained political allegiances implied by sect, define these two hostile neighbors.
Jabal Mohsen is a kind of teeming capital for Lebanon’s Alawites, the offshoot of Shiite Islam whose Syrian adherents constitute loyal legions for Assad, their co-religionist. Below, Bab Tabbaneh is a stronghold of conservative Sunni Muslims, now driving the insurrection in Syria.
The two quarters have battled since the days of Lebanon’s civil war, which ended in 1990, and many Sunnis recall brutal repression during the occupation by the Syrian military, which pulled out in 2005. Now the conflict in Syria has given new life to the simmering resentments.
“Your posture terrifies them,” reads a giant poster of a defiant Assad, decked out in special-forces-type camouflage garb and sunglasses, placed high on a wall in Jabal Mohsen to inspire its residents and rile the Sunnis below.
“If they love Assad so much, why don’t they go back to Syria!” declared a Bab Tabbaneh block leader, seated in a dilapidated outdoor vegetable market, the walls on nearby streets pocked with bullet holes and plastered with images of “martyrs” of past battles.
From the standpoint of many Sunnis, the renewed violence is directed by Assad and his Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group that remains a dominant force in Lebanese politics. Damascus, they say, is sending a message: Assad will not fall without a regional inferno sweeping through the Middle East.
“They have people from Syrian intelligence, from Hezbollah fighting with them in Jabal Mohsen,” said a Bab Tabbaneh militia leader, 35, who gave his name as Abu Khaled. “Their snipers are very skilled. They use silencers.”
In Bab Tabbaneh, the stenciled and spray-painted colors of the Syrian rebel flag — green, black and white — are almost as common as Assad’s image on the other side of Syria Street.